A woman casts her vote in Chile's presidential elections at a polling station in Santiago on November 21, 2021

Santiago (AFP) - Santiago’s stock market surged Monday after a far-right fiscal conservative and a left-wing former student activist dominated Chile’s presidential election and will vie next month to become the South American country’s new leader.

Jose Antonio Kast, 55, and Gabriel Boric, 35, were well clear of rivals in Sunday’s vote and will now compete in a December 19 runoff.

The success of political polar opposites came two years after anti-inequality protests that set Chile on the path to constitutional change, and also sparked the demise of traditional political heavyweights.

Kast of the far-right Republican Party took almost 28 percent of the vote, according to a near-complete count, just two percentage points ahead of lawmaker Boric of the Approve Dignity alliance, which includes the Communist Party.

The next closest candidate managed less than 13 percent.

Principal presidential candidates for the first round of the elections in Chile on November 21

In an address to jubilant supporters, Kast vowed to restore “peace, order, progress and freedom.”

Boric, for his part, pledged to work for “unity,” telling supporters: “We did not take to the streets for everything to remain the same.”

Dozens of people died in 2019 during weeks of demonstrations against low salaries and pensions, poor public health care and education, and in the words of a recent OECD report, “persistently high inequality” between rich and poor.

The protesters demanded a new constitution.

The government finally agreed to a referendum, which one year later gave the go-ahead for a new founding law for Chile to be drawn up by an elected body.

- Order vs change -

Voters will also replace the 155-member Chamber of Deputies and almost two-thirds of senators for a new-look Congress

Sunday’s election continued a recent rout of traditional political parties in charge of decades of neoliberal policy credited with Chile’s relative wealth but blamed for its social inequity.

It started with elections for a new constitution-writing body in May that saw voters opting in large part for independent, left-leaning, candidates.

Kast and Boric are both from minority parties not in government and not part of the coalitions which have governed Chile since the exit of dictator Augusto Pinochet 31 years ago.

Centrists, including candidate Sebastian Sichel from President Sebastian Pinera’s party, proved the least popular.

The markets reacted well to the news with the Santiago stock exchange jumping 9.25 percent and Chile’s peso rebounding 3.5 percent to 800 to the US dollar.

“On one hand, Kast represents the restoration of order and returning to before the social explosion (of 2019), but with an even stronger hand,” analyst Rodrigo Espinoza of Diego Portales University told AFP.

On the other, “Gabriel Boric represents the deepening of political reforms” as demanded by demonstrators.

- ‘Rhetoric of fear’ -

On Sunday, the country of 19 million people also voted to replace the 155-member Chamber of Deputies and almost two-thirds of senators for a new-look Congress.

If no candidate wins 50 percent of votes outright, a runoff between the top two contenders will be held on December 19

Boric has promised to install a “welfare state” if he wins.

Kast has expressed admiration for Pinochet, opposes gay marriage and abortion, and campaigned on restoring order and security.

Billionaire Pinera approaches the end of his second, non-consecutive term with record-low approval ratings.

The country’s economic woes have worsened with the coronavirus epidemic, amid high unemployment, inflation at six percent and skyrocketing government debt as demand for social aid and subsidies exploded.

The second round, said political scientist Marcelo Mella of the University of Santiago, will be marked by a “rhetoric of fear.”

“The fear of a left-wing Boric candidacy not able to respond to the (economic) problems facing the country today, or the fear of an ultra-conservative leadership with Kast that will severely damage the pluralism that a democracy should have.”